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Selwyn Ryan and T&T's intellectual tradition

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 28, 2022

"Death is not an interruption of Being, but a necessary part of it, and the condition of our immortality... We shall die, but we shall not perish."

—Charles W Warner, "The Fear of Death"

In the preface to his semi-autobiographical Beyond a Boundary (1963), CLR James informs his readers that his book poses the question, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? To answer involves ideas as well as facts." (James' italics.)

I have always interpreted this injunction to mean that the significance of cricket to West Indian people lies in our over-standing (to use a Rastafarian idiom) of the social and cultural milieu out of which this inspiring game comes, and how well it speaks to our possibilities as a people.

This profound insight was not original to James. He adopted it from Aucher Warner, the author of Sir Thomas Warner: Pioneer of the West Indies (1933), who made a similar observation about Charles W Warner, a former attorney general and one of the most brilliant men of 19th-century Trinidad. In trying to get his compatriots in England to understand Charles Warner's intellectual brilliance, Aucher Warner wrote: "To many in this country, ‘How little ye know of England / Who only England know,' it will come as a surprise that an address of such scholarly charm and attraction should ema­nate from so remote a corner of Empire, and from one who, save for occasional visits to England, spent his life far away from the centres of literary thought."

Aucher was referring to a lecture, "On the Fear of Death", that Charles delivered to the Trinidad Young Men's Christian Association on January 21, 1873. James had read Aucher's work, spoke of the family's association with cricket in Beyond a Boundary, and reminisced about when "a brother of Sir Pelham Warner, congratulated me on my bowling".

More than any other Trinidadian of his time, James was aware of the weight that T&T and the Caribbean intellectual tradition had on shaping the scholars of the region. He wrote with gusto and intelligence about Maxwell Phillip, the Trinidad Solicitor General, who was equally as brilliant as Charles Warner; JJ Thomas' response to James Anthony Froude's attack on West Indians in The English in the West Indies (1887); as he did about Justice Conrad Reeves of Barbados, Toussaint Louverture of Haiti, and Frederick Douglass of the United States.

Speaking of Thomas' intellectual superiority over Froude, James said: "All these questions that are being discussed, he [JJ Thomas] says, will not be understood unless we have a profound historical conception of where the African people are going and where they have come from. That is the ocean of thought and feeling from which emerge historical manifestations as Marcus Garvey, Aime Cesaire, George Padmore, Frantz Fanon—I confine myself for the moment to Thomas' descendants."

James concludes this marvellous essay, "The West Indian Intellectual", by saying: "I have long believed that there is something in the West Indian past, something in the West Indian environment, something in the West Indian historical development, which compels the West Indian intellectual, when he gets involved with subjects of the kind, to deal with them from a fundamental point of view, to place ourselves in history." (James' italics.)

In his tribute to Ryan, UWI Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles spoke for many of us when he said, "We recognise and celebrate his intellectual and scholastic contribution to The UWI as it continues on a journey of service to the Caribbean people... He was a brilliant research empiricist. Theorising was not his preference. His primary commitment was to enable society to clearly understand the issues at hand for purposes of shaping political policy and practice." (Jamaica Observer, March 25.)

In this context, we can see Ryan as a direct product of the empiricist tradition that shaped Eric Williams at Oxford University and his pragmatic American experience at Howard University. It is a methodology Williams used in History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago and From Columbus to Castro. Necessarily, one can interpret Ryan's work as falling within a tendency of which Williams' work was a part.

St Augustine UWI principal Brian Copeland, reflecting on Ryan's work, wished that younger scholars "pick up where he [Ryan] left off and continue to write and record the history of T&T. Students and graduates will continue—as succeeding generations have done for the last 75 years—to advance learning, create knowledge, and foster innovation of this region and, indeed, the wider world." (Newsday, March 14.)

To achieve this objective, our students, graduates and scholars must help us understand what the totality of Ryan's work means within the context of his immediate society. However, they must also examine Ryan's scholarship within the larger corpus of Caribbean scholarship and how this 20th-century man helped us to better understand ourselves.

Trinidad and Tobago has had a long line of distinguished scholars beginning with LB Tronchin, superintendent of the Boy's Model School in Port of Spain from 1847 to 1877, up to and including the illustrious Selwyn Ryan. But scholarship involves getting the funds to do the necessary research, and this is where the major challenge lies.

Although Ryan has left us, we should not allow his work to perish. Continuing his work ensures his immortality. Yet, the question remains: who will offer the necessary funds to see that his work continues?

Perhaps, we should ask, what do we know of Ryan who only Ryan know? The answer to this question might involve an examination of ideas as well as facts about the man and how we place him in the ever-evolving intellectual order of our society.

Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe

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